How a Virginia Politician Went From Supporting a Gay-Marriage Ban to Being Its Most Powerful Opponent

The new attorney general’s movement on gay marriage reflects a broader political trend.

Supporters of same sex marriage listen to the Pledge of Allegiance during a ceremony where Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the Illinois marriage equality act into law making the state the 16th to allow such unions on November 20, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Jan. 23, 2014, 5:30 a.m.

Vir­gin­ia At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Mark Her­ring came a long way on gay mar­riage be­fore of­fi­cially de­clar­ing on Thursday he would not de­fend his state’s same-sex mar­riage ban. From his gig as state sen­at­or to now, he has moved from sid­ing with former AG and Re­pub­lic­an gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Ken Cuc­cinelli on the ban to be­gin­ning to strike it down.

It’s the kind of polit­ic­al path that doesn’t seem so out of the norm today, when a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans sup­port mar­riage equal­ity. But it’s in­struct­ive of where the is­sue is go­ing, and why some politi­cians are mov­ing fast to change their minds.

As a state sen­at­or in 2006, Her­ring voted with then state Sen. Ken Cuc­cinelli to sup­port a voter ref­er­en­dum on wheth­er the state should have a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment ban­ning gay mar­riage. This wasn’t a sur­prise move from the new le­gis­lat­or. In his failed 2003 state Sen­ate cam­paign, Her­ring ex­pli­citly said that mar­riage should be between a man and a wo­man.

But by sid­ing with Cuc­cinelli, Her­ring tied his po­s­i­tion to that of a firebrand. The year be­fore, Cuc­cinelli’s anti-gay-mar­riage fer­vor came out in a Wash­ing­ton Post in­ter­view ahead of a state Sen­ate vote to ap­prove a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment ban­ning gay mar­riage. He said:

The ho­mo­sexu­al left has been on the at­tack against mar­riage and fam­ily for 40 years, and we’ve been tak­ing it. If you’re go­ing to start a war, if you’re go­ing to in­vade a coun­try, ex­pect a coun­ter­at­tack. All we’re do­ing is re­gain­ing lost ground.

Her­ring, while not ob­vi­ously on the front lines, was on Cuc­cinelli’s side of that war in 2006. The ref­er­en­dum, which passed, set up a Novem­ber vote es­tab­lish­ing the state’s gay-mar­riage ban.

But Her­ring’s at­ti­tude shif­ted by the time he de­cided to run for at­tor­ney gen­er­al as Cuc­cinelli’s suc­cessor last year. Wheth­er be­cause of polit­ics or con­vic­tions, Her­ring began to move against the state’s ban. In April 2013, he pos­ted his cam­paign’s “Equal­ity Agenda,” in which he said he “be­lieves that civil mar­riage is a fun­da­ment­al right,” and he “sup­ports mar­riage equal­ity for same-gender couples.” 

Her­ring’s switch on gay mar­riage be­came a cam­paign is­sue in his race against Re­pub­lic­an Mark Oben­shain, and in a June de­bate he was forced to de­fend his move­ment. Eight years ago, Her­ring said, he was un­com­fort­able with same-sex mar­riage. He con­tin­ued:

But since that time, I’ve done a lot of think­ing about it. I’ve talked to my friends, my con­stitu­ents. I talked to cowork­ers; I talked to my fam­ily, in­clud­ing my chil­dren. And like mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans and a lot of Vir­gini­ans, I don’t be­lieve that way any­more, and I think it’s wrong.

I don’t be­lieve any­body should be treated as a second-class cit­izen, and I don’t be­lieve that the state should de­cide who you can and can­not marry. So I sup­port mar­riage equal­ity, and as we work to­ward mar­riage equal­ity, there are very spe­cif­ic things I, as at­tor­ney gen­er­al, can do to help pro­tect the rights of gay and les­bi­an Vir­gini­ans.

The change in po­s­i­tions over eight years fully re­flects the trend in na­tion­al opin­ion. In May 2006, just 39 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans na­tion­wide were in fa­vor of same-sex mar­riage, with 58 per­cent dis­ap­prov­ing, ac­cord­ing to Gal­lup. By sum­mer 2013, those num­bers had vir­tu­ally flipped, with 54 per­cent ap­prov­ing of same-sex mar­riage and 43 per­cent dis­ap­prov­ing.

That flip is true in Vir­gin­ia, too. The 2006 ref­er­en­dum on an amend­ment ban­ning same-sex mar­riage won the sup­port of 57 per­cent of state voters. An Oc­to­ber 2013 poll found that 56 per­cent of Vir­gin­ia voters op­posed that ban.

It’s easy to look at Her­ring’s move­ment on gay mar­riage as a purely polit­ic­al de­cision. But if you’re a sup­port­er of leg­al­ized same-sex mar­riage, that shouldn’t really mat­ter. It’s just as easy to look at Her­ring’s 2006 ref­er­en­dum sup­port as a purely polit­ic­al de­cision, as back then voters both in his state and across the coun­try were against mar­riage equal­ity in great­er num­bers. Her­ring’s shift fits in­to the wider na­tion­al change in at­ti­tudes, and while that may seem op­por­tun­ist­ic, it’s en­tirely pos­sible that his be­liefs are just re­flect­ive of those of his state.

This kind of move­ment may seem small. Her­ring wasn’t the guy out there call­ing this a war, and Ken Cuc­cinelli likely isn’t about to have a change of heart. But in this par­tic­u­lar case, one politi­cian’s change in views is what mat­ters to put his state on a path to­ward mar­riage equal­ity, start­ing with the de­cision Thursday to chal­lenge the ban. And as we head in­to an­oth­er elec­tion sea­son, it’s a sol­id bet that Mark Her­ring won’t be the only in­flu­en­tial politi­cian chan­ging his mind.

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